Visiting Gatewaycon 2016

Last weekend Jennifer and I drove down to Strategicon. We had a good weekend–not perfect by any means, but a great getaway.

Friday
On Friday, we hit a Santa Monica local place for lunch, essentially at random. It was tasty Thai… and I’ll probably never be able to find it again.

We checked into the hotel around 4, got things moved up to the room easily (we didn’t overpack as badly this time), and rested after our ride, before dusting off Pathfinder and checking out our characters. We brought some snacks down, joined Zach, and played some PFS from 8 until past midnight.

Unfortunately, the GM had received the adventure less than 2 hours before the game started and he was new to GMing. He did great though–and it turned out that he’d prepped wisely, by pressing his girlfriend into work as his dungeon drawing assistant while he read the adventure. (She was done before we reached the table–she had a game of her own to play.) Anyway, it was a good experience, though mostly because we got to play with Zach.

Saturday
Saturday had a lazy beginning–no urgent morning game. Jennifer and I cruised the dealer hall… a little too quickly. The turnout among venders was much worse; basically no one was carrying indie games unless they were demoing their own. Speaking of which, I did get to play an enjoyable abstract–reminiscent of checkers, with movement allowances dictated by a card deck draw. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not one that’d make it to my table. Still, pleasant enough and the game was quick to play.

After lunch with Zach and Jennifer, I grabbed my gear and headed down to run my Dogs in the Vineyard game, Destiny Branch. (It’s the same branch I ran at the minicon–the familiarity from repeated exposure to the NPCs was great.) I had two preregistrations on day 1, which filled the game. (Only half can be reserved online, with the other half available for signup at the con.) At the con, I had +3 signups on paper. Only 2 people, both the preregistrants, actually sat at my table. Fortunately, Dogs is great with a pair.

They tackled it in a very different manner from my June game, in part prompted by the different relationships they selected with the locals. The blight sign (from an overlook of the town) prompted them to ride directly to the farms, where their relations (and a love interest) were. The next morning they talked with the most affected farmer, then rode into town and encountered the obnoxious gold leaf being placed. From there they saw the Steward… and went off to the final confrontation.

It was a solid session; both players were new to the game, but character generation led to interesting characters who really engaged. They’d both heard about it recently and decided to give it a try. Both really enjoyed the dice mechanic, but wondered about drifting the game to another setting (a less problematic one). I talked about how the problematicness was baked right in, intentionally… it was a great discussion.

After the game, I grabbed a quick Cobb salad (thanks to Bryan for putting that in my head–it’s good fuel!) from the hotel Starbucks and headed up to my table to run my fate game, Camp X. Unfortunately, while it also had two signups early in the online preregistration, by the con one had been changed to “badge refunded”. The one player wasn’t joined by any paper signups, so decided not to bother showing up for a game that wouldn’t fire. [I presume.]

After waiting 15 minutes and noting the attendance as zero, I excitedly headed to the (poorly advertised) Games on Demand. When I got there, a sign explained that six games were on offer (mostly GMless favorites, like Microscope, The Quiet Year, and Kingdom).

(Aside) Games on Demand Pros:

  • Games on demand is a great concept, successfully implemented at GenCon, etc.
  • They scheduled the slots to begin 30 minutes after the roleplaying slots–so, if your game was canceled, you always had a backup available.

Games on Demand Cons:

  • Poor advertisement: It got a decent placement, but I hadn’t heard about it at all, and it was only a line in the Con Schedule Book. I don’t know if it was listed online–since “on demand” meant that you don’t signup in advance.
  • At 8:20 pm, one guy was holding the room and didn’t really seem to understand the concept. He wasn’t a player or GM, didn’t point me to the game interest/signup list or anything else.

Anyway, no game fired with only me present and signed up as interested. After 8:30, we both wandered away.

I headed down to the board game area; it was still quite busy. After drifting around the room and awkwardly looking over people’s shoulders, I came to the HQ table, where they kept track of the events on a white board. I noticed that a Captain Sonar 101 (demo) was going to start at 9, which was in just a few minutes. I was present when the organizer arrived and they discussed which tables would be free for use and where we could muster and discuss crews. There were 31 signups; I made 32.

We gathered in the hallway where we could discuss things without having to shout so loudly. Most of the attendees had never played, though a few had played one position. As resident “expert” and enthusiast, I was provided a crew of three other players and an opposing team. Much as when Josh taught us, we went through a few turns… then leaped into real time. My ship took terrific damage from loading up systems, but eventually we cornered our foe and landed a pair of perfect torpedo hits, eeking out a victory.

Unfortunately, we had only one game box, so we all got up and swapped out for the next two crews. Much like previous times, the people who weren’t playing (and random people walking by) clumped up around the game to study and cheer the teams on. After the second match, we had hit “tournament time” (the demo was scheduled for an hour), but with only one box we built a few more crews (I played one more match) and turned the subs loose on each other. All in all, a very fun end to the evening.

Sunday
I set my alarm so I could get to Pat’s table for his Fate: Pacific Rim game. He had perfect attendance–6 players showed up on time, with one showing up 20 minutes late and having to get turned aside.

It came off incredibly well; he’d prepared a cool soundtrack that ran in the background (with key moments having custom tracks), and a great in media res beginning with a patrol off to rescue a crashed ship… and fight off a wave of Kaiju.

The fight was the densest, most complete Fate fight I’ve experienced. The pair of people working together to manuever a Jaeger made for a great partner to bounce ideas off. We generated a ton of Aspects for our positioning, target systems, our efforts to distract them and more–and needed them, since the Kaiju could take a tremendous beating and ignored minor pokes.

It was a slick, well produced game–clearly a labor of love. We even walked away with cool mini-movie posters featuring our Jaeger: mine was Aurora Bombshell. Don’t mess with Artemis and Athena!

After another Cobb salad, I got to my afternoon Dungeon World game. It was stacked with engaged players; a pair were new to the system, while the guy to my right was a regular GM of the game.

We explored (and slew!) the Everinth, a twisting collection of elements the demon had eaten over time, including whole towers, sewers, natural caverns and much more. It was a weird and sometimes surreal journey to the labyrinth’s heart…

It was a great one-shot. I made a mistake that I often do–picking a less flashy character–but my portly dwarven cleric got plenty of well tailored hooks (and moves) directed at him. There were a number of good moments, including the PCs stretched out along an icy cliff and climbing–only to hear dragon wings as the lead team reached a cave ahead! Poor Drummond clung to the icy wall, but Dagolir went tumbling down to smash into the icy pond below. Fortunately, Slog kept the dragon busy until Cinder Colfang scorched it badly in its protruding rear… which prompted a roar of pain… and Slog’s sword stab through the top of the dragon’s open mouth.

Several other good scenes popped up; the GM had a logic to the connections between the surreal locations that we moved between–eventually discerned–and lots of vivid locations for us to court danger. Plus our bonds threw us together and encouraged conflict in good ways throughout the adventure.

All in all, it was a great night and a cool tale to kick Drummond’s adventures into new motion.

After the session, I caught the close of Mike’s Traveler game, where I was scheduled to join Mike and Pat for dinner. Unfortunately, a mishap left Mike unable to join us, so Pat and I headed out for night of good conversation on the town. It was nice to get away from the con a bit and catch up.

On return to the con, I headed down to board games learn Glory to Rome. It’s an interesting card game; still popular despite not being published for a while. After a half-game during the 101, I joined the tournament that followed. There… I got to see some very effective strategies, though I did luck into a pretty good one myself. After being eliminated, I headed up to sleep.

Monday We slept in late, before checking out and loading up the car. We returned to see Shane’s game being playtested, but got distracted in the hall by a cool Sherlock Holmes game in development. We got a good description, then got to play through a quick game with another curious customer and the friend of the designer who was demoing.

It’s a fun cooperative game with great art. It’s thematic, and has a great mechanism for connecting clues to tie Moriarty to crimes. On the flip side, Moriarty’s deck makes him threatening… but sometimes he’s so scheming far ahead that you don’t have to worry about this turn’s fiendish twist.

Afterwards, we got a chance to see (but were too late to play) Shane’s space merchant game in development. It was in a much earlier phase–still printed pieces without art. It looked interesting but complicated to explain. Gameplay seemed much less complex once you got started only the techs of your specific ship to worry about.

After watching them play for about a half-hour, Jennifer and I hit the road home. We beat the worst of the traffic–there was some stop-and-go after the 405 joined the 5, but it wasn’t that bad. Then over the mountains and the flat road home.

Recent Media 6/10

I’ve listened to less than you’d think, and the episodes have been less impressive than I’ve come to expect. The books, on the other hand, have been wonderful.

Books
A genuinely good, provocative book was The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A history of steam, industry, and invention. A very interesting book that ties a number of elements together as necessary preconditions for the industrial revolution. I particularly appreciated the details on pre-coke patents and how the change in standards–especially moving from “secrecy” to “legal protection” as the framework for patents.

The details of the development of the various improvements was fascinating; I hadn’t realized how inefficient the original engine was, and how many different improvements went into making the combustion energy efficient enough to drive a train or steamship.

For pure pleasure, it’s hard to beat Scalzi’s new Old Man’s War book, The Human Division. The world advanced interestingly; the perils of negotiation and diplomacy are a great way to expand the universe beyond a grunt’s eye view. (This follows the trend from the previous few books.) Jennifer warned me that the book ends on a cliffhanger… and threatened poor Scalzi’s life if he wasn’t at his desk writing the next episodes. So, hopefully he’s doing that. [I enjoyed the book and am intrigued by the mysterious opponents… I’m also looking forward to the finding out more.]

Podcasts
The Jefferson Hour, Show 1024 Etiquette (5-12-13). A conversation about a perennial thorn in democracy’s discussions. While the historical bits were interesting, the conversation never really escaped grumpy old men and “get off my lawn”.

The Jefferson Hour, Show 1025 Political Process (5-19-13). An odd mismatch; the guest host played up techno-wonder at our problems and solutions, never really addressing Jefferson’s (very predictable) counterpoints. Unfortunately, the net effect was to make the guest host look terminally naive and Jefferson look 200 years out of date. The problem came from both ends; Ms. Hedger has a great deal of practical experience with governing that didn’t come through as she delved into technological capabilities and the role of money bought too into the insiders’ perspective. To have a better debate, Jefferson might have been better playing up the inventor side, discussing with wonder the idea of observing the far side of the globe, etc. As it stood, he was able to dismiss modern complexities convincingly, but had no where to go after his “victory”.

This American Life 495: Hot In My Backyard About getting discussion of climate change “unstuck”; interesting, but not captivating.

GenCon games

I tried out four new RPGs, most of which I’ve been following casually since development– and one, Burning Wheel, which I’d owned but had been too intimidated to run without playing. After playing it, I think I could run it– and would enjoy doing so. Dresden was fun– very like I expected, but it was great to see the other players go “click” when they got Aspects. The game was crazy and over the top by the end, when it all sang. The GM took some chances, but they paid off beautifully, and really reinforced the feel of the novels. Star Wars was very well run intrigue– and I accidentally got to play the straight man– the only guy no one had a hold on. So they kept me in the dark– as a player and PC both– and it was a blast. Of course, it didn’t end quite right… my dice went on a hot streak and the rebel defectors fell to my blaster. 😉 Pathfinder was interesting; it’s exactly as advertised– a slight cleanup and extension of 3.5. I was able to play confidently from my character sheet, despite never looking at the book.

Meeting writers of blogs and RPG books was less exciting than I’d anticipated. Despite following people for years, it’s all one way, so conversations really stalled at the “nice to meet you” stage. Which, really, is fine– I’d never pushed to make them closer before, and a con with so many new faces wasn’t the place.

Conversely, finally meeting the people I’ve been writing with for a couple of years was neat. We didn’t schedule enough together time– I could have spent a day, easy, in camaraderie, but we were all trying to fill our GenCon, most were traveling with other friends, and so on. Still, it was great to meet them, the same night we won the Ennie– which was nice. The ceremony was too long, and Pathfinder’s roll of victories (something like 11 of 21 categories) got a little embarrassing after a while. The workshop the next morning was great– I’m not a huge public speaker, but it was very comfortable passing the conversation and questions back and forth, due to our years of interaction. Winning a silver Ennie was great– I think it caught us all off guard. Selling out the 50 con copies of Eureka was gratifying– all the way through the design I though the product category was a long shot because so little system neutral stuff does well. I was pleasantly surprised to find out otherwise– though some of that was due to our sights not being too large.

Open board gaming was a way to fill the cracks; it was interesting to see which games were popular enough to maintain tournaments years after their release. The Rio Grande room was great– they had a roving demo staff who would come up to you when you sat down at a board, and would walk you through the first couple of turns. I got to try out several new games, which was a nice spot of fun. They also had Dominion’s new expansion, Prosperity, which really broke the mold of the first few sets. It’s intentionally inflationary, and I suspect that it won’t mesh well with core sets Dominion– or, rather, that games using Prosperity cards will feel more like Prosperity than core Dominion.

I blew off a game for more dealer’s hall roaming Sunday. The dealer’s hall was impressive, sometimes overwhelming. Each time I’d hit an area I’d see new booths I’d somehow not noticed on the previous pass. Given my biases, it was more amazement at the variety of goodies out there than the need to buy much that struck me… but the IPR booth was dangerous, particularly when a designer pitched their own game.

Sunday morning we also got a very quick demo of Battles of Westeros, FFG’s new “Battlelore” core set. We all liked it right away, and I think it’s a lot like a Euro-game version of most tactical minis games; about a 90 minute play time, simple but deep rules, with lots of room for strategy but a strong influence by luck. We bought BoW and it’s been a frequent play this week. We have the rules down pretty smoothly now, and once the new game luck wore off for me, Jennifer enjoyed it too.

It was sometimes overwhelming, often fun in a small way, sometimes fun in a huge way, and simply an amazing experience. I have no idea when I’ll get to go again, but I hope it’s some time soon.

More on the RPGs (from the original post):
Burning Wheel was great to see in play; I’ve long owned it, but had been intimidated by the rules. I now think I could tackle it.

Dresden was great– I love the novels– but what really made it sing was watching the non-Fate players “get” Aspects. We did some crazy big, crazy cool stuff. I’m going to steal the GM’s big marker and index cards for keeping track of scene and city aspects– having them in front of you reminded you to tag them for awesomeness.

My Star Wars game involved some really well run intrigue. It was great to play with my normal Star Wars GM– he’s long run it, but hadn’t had a chance to actually play. Winding up the accidental straight man, and rolling incredibly lucky just when the story required that I not do so was great.

Learning byswarm’s “Dark Golden” world and Pathfinder was neat. The easy grapple rules really were impressive, and familiarity from long play of 3.5 made it relaxing.

Sunday: Looking at suburbs and the Catalan Dragons

We kept Sunday low key and drove around the suburbs of Perpignan to see what they looked like. Honestly, it reminded me strongly of our suburbs, with lots of housing and a bit less in the way of restaurants and patisseries open on Sunday. We eventually found somewhere to grab a bite to eat, then spotted the Decathalon store (also closed on Sunday), got a little lost, and returned to the room for some bread, cheese, and a movie, Amélie. Amélie was a neat movie, very much an exploration of the main character’s life and quirks as she gets lured into stepping out of her shell more and more.

Then we drove to the big game: the Catalan Dragons against some foolish interloper. (The Wigan Warriors, according to Jennifer). Their mascot is on the “super cute” end of the cute/fierce scale.

Down on the field there was some Rugby. The first half, most of the action was on our end– bad news for the Dragons, who were defending the goal on our end. Well, trying– their opponents ran up a substantial lead early, despite the dragons being heavily favored.

Of course, I say “our end”, but this was another of those confusing… things work sometimes, but not others. We must have been the first people to ever purchase our tickets on the internet, because three out of 4 “bouncers” directed us from one side to the other– the only thing they knew was that the tickets wouldn’t let us sit in their section. Even though the other bouncer had sent us there.

Finally, the fourth guy let us wander right by and claim our seats a few minutes before the match started. No clue what he saw that the others didn’t… but it was amusing, and made me think of their phone and net struggles. Anyway, below are random pictures from the game. There’s really no story to them- just random shots throughout the game.

I liked rugby, though I’d have liked to watch a couple more games so I could start to learn through repetition. It doesn’t supplant American football (or soccer) yet– but I’ve only been exposed once. I did like the pace and points– it scores like football, but the pace is constant like soccer. Really, it’s a great hybrid.

Saturday: Queribus Castle and the Aude Gorge

We had a lazy start, slept in, and hit the morning market for picnic lunch components. Then we saddled up and hit the road for Queribus, one of the Cathar Castles stretching along the old boundary between France and Aragon. Approaching the castle was impressive; from the town of Maury where we turned off of the highway, it sits up in the sky. After wandering through the narrow city streets, we followed the roundabout signs and were soon headed toward the town of Cucugnan. The road was two pretty good lanes as we started twisting up the mountain. Soon we turned off of the main road and climbed the narrow track to Queribus. The car did a good job, though the lack of guardrails continued to amaze Jennifer as we threaded the winding road.

From the valley floor, Queribus looks the a finger on the mountain. (I wish we’d take a good picture from the valley floor.) From the top of the track, where you park, it’s still impressive. And unsquishable, as Jennifer found out. We wandered from the small parking lot to the wooden buildings at the foot of the trail, where we bought tickets and an audioguide. (The castle docents and shop owners were from the village of Cucugnan.)

After we climbed just a few feet and passed the first bend, I took this picture. They were big fans of capitalizing on what nature provided: a lot of the bare stone is the mountain itself, often barely shaped.

At the first landing, where the stable used to be, we were confronted with a sturdy wall and daunting arrow and musket slits. From the landing where I was standing, it’s the last clear spot before climbing the narrow stairs. It’s also right at the end of a straight away, so you’re forced to slow here– right in the kill zone. You already have a good field of view downhill from here– you can easily see the winding track we drove up to reach mighty Queribus.

Once you climbed past this point and forced your way through the short door, you then have a nice stone stair to advance along. Not that they make it easy.

Eventually you make it past the outlook points (they had a map labeling all of the things you could see from there: you could easily see significant cities and towns on both sides of the border), and finally turn into the castle proper. The first room (where the picture was taken from) was a three story wood barracks (tied into the rock and stone walls)– now we can look straight from the bottom floor up at the keep looming over everything. When you take an immediate left on entering, you come into a common area with a huge lookout window overlooking the sheer southeastern face.

A few steps up the stairs and we got out on a half level– it turns out that the room we entered had originally been two stories (you could see the sockets for the wood beams), with a great column sprouting from the middle of the room. At the top of the column four arches sprang, a beautiful effect. (Practical too, reminded our audioguide: 4 arches are stronger than one, so this was a powerful way to span the large space.)

Then back to the stairwell, where we climbed toward the roof. Let’s just say that no one’s swinging an axe in this compressed space.

At the top we emerge into a modern tile walkway over the stones. You can see incredibly far in every direction.

On our way out, we took a photo up from the courtyard. The castle’s pretty imposing. Amazingly, this fortress was normally held by just 25 men. They certainly had a number of advantages in defense.

From here, we made our way back down to the car, grabbed our lunch fixings, and settled on a nearby bench where we had bread, fruit, and tasty cheeses. We were pretty wiped out after clambering around all those stairs and slopes, but wanted to check out Peyrepertuse, another Cathar castle visible from Queribus. We drove to the foot of the castle and looked up at the imposing sight.

We decided that too many castles in a day would be overkill, returned to the car, and drove down through an Aude gorge. It was impressive, cutting deep into the rock below among mountains, so you could look up and down both at once from the road threading its way along a path in the middle. The view was breathtaking.

As we wandered around the lookout spot on the south end of the gorge, the weather decided to stop threatening and start raining. We hopped in our little Ka and drove back, thankful that we hadn’t explored and gotten stuck on top of Peyrepertuse in the rain. The rain was heavy– fat drops that the windshield wipers struggled to clear.

We wandered back to the room and I tried my hand at cooking up Catalan sausage. It’s a tasty mild sausage that cooks up quite similarly to Keelbasa… and is good with potato too.

Thursday’s exploration of Perpignan

As Jennifer’s work week spun up, I did some exploration on my own. (I’m skipping a few days of slower time; I hope to fill them in later. Thumbnail summary: Monday cooked lunch for Jennifer, Rachelle and her family, then created characters with the kids; Tuesday low key exploration and did laundry; Wednesday played D&D with the kids.)

Thursday morning I headed inside the cathedral of Saint-Jean-Baptiste.
Continue reading “Thursday’s exploration of Perpignan”

Perpignan (well, actually Collioure): Day 3

Our third day began with a train ride to Collioure, a beach town about 30 minutes south of Perpignan. The walk from the station to the beach was quick– just about 5 minutes. The highlight of the trip was touring the Majorcan king’s summer palace, and hearing about its changes and growth over 5 centuries. This set of pictures is from our time wandering the town before the tour. Continue reading “Perpignan (well, actually Collioure): Day 3”

Perpignan: The beginning

After a bit of delay, I have finally accessed the French internet! (It turns out that the code they gave us was good for only 1 computer, but they don’t staff much on weekends. Yesterday was the first day we encountered someone we could explain our problem to, someone who could get me a login.)

The first few days have been busy-busy-busy! Jennifer’s had even less free time than the kids, since there’s been planning and website design meetings during the students’ breaks. I’ve enjoyed the trip, but week one of this trip has been a whole lot busier with school activities than last year’s week two. [Just a lot of getting things running– plus welcome parties for faculty and their men.]

Enough with the boring: on to the pictures! [Click for larger versions.] Continue reading “Perpignan: The beginning”